“It’s really discouraging,” said Natalie Dale, spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Transportation, which tracks traffic fatalities. “We’d been heading in the right direction for so long.”
This year’s tally reverses what had been a gradual decline in traffic fatalities, which peaked at 1,556 in 2016. At the time, safety advocates said distracted driving – including texting and otherwise messing with cell phones – was a key factor.
Two years ago the General Assembly prohibited drivers from handling electronic devices while driving, which experts said contributed to the recent decline in traffic fatalities. And with traffic down substantially amid the pandemic, safety advocates hoped for further gains.
Instead, GDOT noticed traffic fatalities were rising, and trend has not let up. Most recently, the Georgia State Patrol reported that 20 people died in fatal crashes over the Christmas holiday weekend.
Police say this year’s lighter traffic has tempted many drivers to speed – leading to more severe consequences when they crash. Though it will be months before GDOT can conduct a full analysis, Dale said preliminary data show excessive speed is likely just one factor in rising fatalities. A lack of seat belts, impaired driving and other factors also have played a role.
“Right now, it looks like a bunch of really bad decisions across the board by drivers,” she said.